With the possible exception of Louisville fans, who must be watching in horror as the the rest of The American devolves into a sea of smoldering wreckage, few college football fanbases are as nervous about their perceived strength of schedule as Ohio State, and for good reason.
The Buckeyes didn't get too many favors from their other opponents on Saturday. Nebraska gave up over 600 yards to Wyoming and barely sweat out a close victory. Illinois nearly flubbed away a win over an FCS squad, Iowa undid a surprisingly competent first half to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against Northern Illinois, and Purdue was promptly blasted into another hemisphere by Cincinnati.
With the possible exception of Nebraska though, none of those would qualify as exceptionally surprising. That title would be reserved for Ohio State's second opponent, one projected to be at least competent, the San Diego State Aztecs, who not only lost, but lost *soundly* to FCS Eastern Illinois, 40-19. At home.
This led to a fairly predictable reaction from Ohio State fans. Sure, Buckeye fans probably expected to beat SDSU by double digits either way, but has what could have been an okay game now automatically a blowout? Are the Aztecs as terrible as the scoreboard said late Saturday night? What can we learn from such an unfortunate beatdown?
First, who is Eastern Illinois anyway? They were a decidedly average FCS squad last year, going 7-5 in the OVC. The Panthers managed to beat #18 Eastern Kentucky, but struggled against other higher ranked FCS opponents, and were blitzed in their only appearance against FBS competition, losing 52-21 to Western Michigan. Expectations were higher this year though, as EIU started the season ranked #21 in the FCS Top 25, perhaps thanks to projected to be a strong passing game.
Now, a Top 25 ranking in the FCS doesn't guarantee success against FBS foes. #5 ranked Villanova lost by 10 to what is probably a not very good Boston College team, and #8 Wofford was *drilled* by Baylor. Others, like #1 North Dakota State, #4 Eastern Washington, or #11 Towson, answered the bell quite nicely. It's probably only a small comfort to know that SDSU lost to what was a pretty good FCS team, but the Aztecs were still favored to win the game, and for good reason.
So what happened? Let's start with the offense.
If you go just by yardage, the Aztecs didn't do too badly. SDSU picked up 440 total yards, and threw for 318, which would typically be enough to dispatch an underdog. That doesn't tell the full story though.
For starters, new QB Adam Dingwell attempted a ridiculous 63 attempts, only connecting on 27. To make matters worse, 4 of those passes went to Eastern Illinois. SDSU is not a team built to win by throwing an air-raid like number of times, and considering this was still a single score game until the 4th quarter, when an EIU punt return broke the game open, the Aztec's didn't necisarrily need to throw every down to get back into the game.
A likely reason was the loss of star RB Adam Muema to an ankle injury in the first half. Muema, who ran for 1,458 yards and 16 TDs last season, wasn't exactly electric in the 10 carries he got (his longest carry was 7 yards), but his presance would have allowed for the Aztecs to run a more balanced offense, instead of requiring Dingwell to force the issue. Outside of a 48 yard touchdown run by Colin Lockett, the Aztecs struggled mightily to run the ball in Muema's absence, a combination of lack of depth at the position, and a lack of push by the offensive line. We wrote that SDSU had lost two all-MWC linemen from a year before and had a lot of youth at that position group, so their failure against a squad much smaller than Ohio State should be particularly worrisome to Aztec partisans.
Still, despite their inefficiency on offense, the Aztecs were still in the game in spite of their 5 turnovers. The Aztecs also fumbled twice in the first half, recovering both times, so I suppose their turnover luck could have been even WORSE. It's unlikely that Adam Dingwell will toss 4 interceptions again against Ohio State, but their margin of error for getting unlikely with fumbles is far smaller.
So that's the offense. What about the defense? A cursory look isn't good. The Panthers gashed what projected to be a stout Aztec defense for 533 yards, 361 in the air. Panther QB Jimmy Garoppolo was efficient, going 31/46, tossing 3 TDs against no interceptions, and added 20 yards rushing to boot. EIU did fumble twice, but otherwise, this unit performed about as well as you could have asked them to.
EIU was able to convert on multiple big plays. They opened the scoring on a 37 yard TD pass to Erik Lora, and also scored on a 65 yard TD pass, and a 45 yard TD run. Another 54 yard pass might have turned into points, if the Panthers hadn't fumbled on the SDSU 22. They were able to take advantage of a few key SDSU defensive breakdowns, and perhaps some of that had to do with luck. The Panthers were able to move the ball in more sustained stretches as well though.They had a 19 play drive in the 2nd quarter (even though it didn't generate any points), and had another 18 play drive in the 3rd. Both were probably helped by SDSU penalties, but the Panthers weren't relying exclusively on big plays.
While the Aztecs can point to their poor turnover luck as a reason why they didn't win, EIU could probably do the same for why the game was as close as it was. Both of their lost fumbles were in Aztec territory, and the team also failed to convert a 4th and 2 from the Aztec 34 in the first half. San Diego State also fumbled again inside their own 20 during the 3rd quarter, and had the Panthers recovered, it would have easily led to more points. Both teams left scoring opportunities on the table, so luck wasn't just unfairly against SDSU.
So what can we make of this? Was this just one of those no good, very bad days where the Aztecs submitted some fluke-ish terrible play? That's possible. I feel comfortable saying SDSU probably won't fumble the ball 4 times, or throw another 4 interceptions, and certainly their gameplan would have been different if Muema was healthy.
Still, there are some real danger signs. SDSU was supposed to have one of the biggest non-Big 5 linebacking corps in the country, and they were gouged by big play after big play. Their offensive line was bullied by a team smaller and slower than what Ohio State will be able to throw out, while Jimmy Garoppolo did a great Tony Romo impression, he's no Braxton Miller.
Also, there's this:
SDSU's defense vs EIU: no sacks, no hurries, no PDs in 46 pass attempts. EIU's defense: 4 sacks, 4 INTs, FIFTEEN total PDs.— Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) September 3, 2013
And also this.
So on 36 SDSU incompletions, EIU got a hand on the ball on almost half of them. That's some well-covered receivers right there.— Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) September 3, 2013
If everybody was healthy, and these two teams play 10 teams, San Diego State probably still wins at least eight. The gaps showed by this game aren't going away though. This is still a team with a vulnerable secondary, an offensive that isn't explosive, and an inexperienced line. If they couldn't overcome those against EIU, their chances of making noise in the Mountain West, let alone against Ohio State, are slim.
Is SDSU as bad as the box score showed them yesterday? Probably not. But if they don't get a whole hell of a lot better by next week, Buckeye fans might get that total blowout they were hoping for against Buffalo.